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Patience, please

July 01, 2006

AFTER ONE FULL YEAR OF MAYOR Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles is not exactly different. The schools aren't stellar, the subway doesn't run to the beach, the homeless haven't left the streets, traffic doesn't move freely, housing remains scarce, a city budget crisis looms, the police shortage persists, the smog still hovers.

And yet -- everything has changed. Los Angeles has never had a mayor like Villaraigosa, one who so seamlessly melds personality, power, politics and his love of the city. His omnipresence and his personality demand attention, and he makes the attention work for him -- and sometimes for all of us.

This is new. We've had mayors who loved the cameras and the microphones; Sam Yorty comes to mind. But the archetypal Los Angeles mayors were people such as Fletcher Bowron and Tom Bradley -- quiet, stolid, background city figureheads. There's something in this city's civic DNA that has demanded government without high-profile leadership.

Villaraigosa is as high profile, and as political, as a mayor can be, and that makes L.A. more high profile and more political than it has ever been. In raising the city's profile, the mayor has raised its expectations, and thus its demands. The one-year anniversary of a mayor marks the crest of the traditional popularity arc in this demanding show-biz town, after which fandom is expected to move from enchantment to disappointment. But instead of dampening the expectations set during the campaign, Villaraigosa has spent his first year raising them for the rest of his term. His goals are lofty on every front.

The mayor's fatally compromised school oversight plan is a worrisome early sign that he may settle for movement (or a deal) for movement's sake at times, but it is too early to make an across-the-board assessment. Elsewhere, Villaraigosa's deft political touch has paid dividends. Within the last week, he put an end to the childish turf wars between the Los Angeles Police Department and the airport police. From bus drivers and mechanics, he got a contract without a walkout -- a rarity in these parts. About that subway to the beach -- Villaraigosa pushed through a $10-million study to get the process moving. Earlier in his term came a new deal to modernize the airport, a sound budget agreement and progress on curbing port pollution. He assembled a top-flight staff and, for now, has the City Council and the Legislature eating out of his hand.

What happened to the homeless initiative? Is the mayor dragging his feet on his $1-billion housing bond? Where are those new cops?

Patience. It's only been a year. Even if our wheeler-dealer mayor ends up stepping on too many toes or bringing back less than he promised, he's led us to expect more. And expecting more is always the first step toward getting more.

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